At its very core, the purpose of a design portfolio is simple: a collection of your best work to showcase your style and skills. The definition may be easy to understand, but in reality, there are many portfolio traps that can steer you off course.
For example, how often do you update your portfolio? How much background information should you write for each project? What should the portfolio look like? How “fun” can you make it?
These simple questions can have dramatic impacts on your design portfolio. Recruiters and hiring managers may only look at your portfolio for a few minutes, so it’s crucial that you present your work in a simple, digestible fashion that also speaks to who you are as a designer.
Here are six things to avoid as you start building or updating your design portfolio:
Mistake #1: Too much or too little work
Portfolios can easily fall victim to the Goldilocks dilemma: including too much work can overwhelm, while too little work can defeat the purpose of a portfolio. You need to find that sweet spot right in the middle, where every project you include adds to the narrative you’re trying to create.
It’s much more common for designers to add too much work, so avoid the temptation to include every single project you complete. Instead, be strategic and understand how you’re trying to position yourself as a designer. Do you want to be a UX designer for tech companies? Or an illustrator for lifestyle brands?
Once you have your portfolio’s “thesis” statement nailed down, it’ll be easier to identify which projects should be added.
Mistake #2: Lack of context
Your design portfolio shouldn’t be filled with blocks of text, but don’t go to the other extreme and exclude all copy. Potential clients and employers need context to understand and appreciate your work. And, writing a brief paragraph about the project will also showcase your design approach, thought process, and working style.
For every project in your portfolio, try to add the following details:
- Client or company name
- How it was created
- Who else was involved
- Your specific role and responsibilities
Mistake #3: Dry, “corporate” feel with no personality
There’s a human behind your designs! Sure, companies want to see your work, but they also want to get to know you.
Stand out from the crowd by putting your personality on display. But, this doesn’t mean that you should throw out all traces of professionalism. Find that balance of fun and quirky, while still portraying yourself as a strong potential hire.
How should you do this? You could get creative with the “About me” section, create your own personal branding, or link to your blog.
Mistake #4: Overly-complicated, overly-designed layout
Don’t forget that your portfolio has one primary goal: highlighting your best work to help you advance in your career. Remember this when choosing a template, layout, or building your own portfolio website.
Just like all design, focus on the customer experience first. And in this scenario, your customers are potential clients and employers. Make it as easy as possible for them to view and understand your work. This might mean that you forego flashy visuals and complex animations.
Instead, you may choose to go with a super simple, one-page layout. This way, visitors will be able to see everything at once without having to bounce between pages or click around to find what they’re looking for.
Mistake #5: Only displaying high-fidelity images
Your beautiful, polished designs certainly have a place in your portfolio, but don’t rely on them completely. How you got to those final designs is just as important.
Think about what else you can include in your portfolio that tells the whole story. The project brief? The questions you asked during the research stage? Your early mock-ups? The results from user testing?
Mistake #6: No way to get in touch with you
Many times, you’ll be the one showing your portfolio to someone else (like in an interview, for example). But, your portfolio should be publicly discoverable, and when someone likes your work and wants to learn more about you, they need a way to contact you.
Make sure your portfolio has a clear way to get in touch with you, either by listing your email address, social media profiles, or embedding a contact form. These inbound messages could lead to jobs and freelance projects, and help build your community.
Your portfolio should evolve with you
Once you create a portfolio you’re proud of, don’t forget to update it on a regular basis. A portfolio is never truly complete, as it is a living and breathing asset that should reflect your evolving design identity.
Don’t go overboard and update your design portfolio simply for the sake of adding recent work. Instead, use it as an exercise to revisit your skills, goals, and vision. Perhaps you realize you want to learn a new design technique or that you’re interested in creating for a new industry.
Think of your portfolio as a way to learn about yourself as a designer as much as it is about showing off your work.
Emily has written for some of the top tech companies, covering everything from creative copywriting to UX design. When she's not writing, she's traveling the world (next stop: Japan!), brewing kombucha, and biking through the Pacific Northwest.